by Jeffrey Eugenides
Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book-'Em
2004) Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, is narrated
by Calliope Stephanides as an historical re-telling of her
life from the perspective of Cal, the 41-year
old male she grew up to be. But don't be misled by the apparent
focus on sexual identity. While the issue of Cal's hermaphroditism
informatively and sensitively, in the end it is only a subplot
to this tale.
The protagonist's "5-alpha reductase deficiency recessive gene syndrome" is,
in reality, the ploy that allows Cal to tell a complex and
intriguing three-generational story of the Greek-American Stephanides
family. The reader follows Cal's grandparents, Lefty and
Desdemona, and two generations
of their offspring as they escape from Turkish havoc in their
isolated, small Greek village to the city of Detroit and
the Depression, prohibition, automotive
assembly lines, WW II, race riots, the 60's, and today's
Eugenides is an accomplished social historian and a masterful
storyteller. He weaves his tale around his words with beautifully wrought,
description, fanciful and imaginative plotting, and graceful
metaphor. This author seems to love hearing himself go on at length (Middlesex is
529 pages long), but he is good enough to get away with it.
This Book-'Em choice was unanimously enjoyed. Members found the book:
"kooky," "so personal," "even the secondary characters are great,"
"insanity presented in such an amiable way," "colorful," "so rich,"
"always maintains the humor, never sounds desperate."
Eugenides' portrayal of Detroit thru multiple eras and his ability as
a male author to so accurately and credibly express the thoughts, feelings,
postures and perspectives of a female character were considered true
strengths of the book. Of interest was the way Middlesex raised the
specter of several recent Book-'em selections. We were reminded of the
assimilation experience of The Namesake, gender identity issues in
She's Not There, and the religious overtones in Liars and Saints.
Fate versus free will, a common literary theme, provided much to discuss.
Just as Cal lives in a middle ground between male and female, there is no
clear answer to whether fate or free will controls the plot. Greek culture is
fatalistic in nature. But Cal (Eugenides) then tells us, "Biology gives you a
brain. Life turns it into a mind." Fate versus free will, nature versus nurture,
Greek versus American -- there are many layers of meaning to this novel's title.
Middlesex is an unusual, multidimensional read. And the evening's stuffed
grape leaves, Greek olives, and phyllo-wrapped spinach (spanikopita) were
the perfect complement to the book. Together, these were ingredients for a
great book club night.
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